UK invests in ‘the wrong type of satellites’

The UK government’s investment in OneWeb has been described as “nonsensical” by experts, who say the company makes the wrong type of satellite.

The 20 per cent stake was intended to mitigate the UK’s loss of access to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system after Brexit.

But all major satellite positioning systems operate in a medium Earth orbit of approximately 20,000 km from the planet, while OneWeb’s satellites operate in a low Earth orbit 1,200km up.

The Guardian spoke to Bleddyn Bowen, a lecturer in international relations and space policy expert at the University of Leicester, who said: “The fundamental starting point is, yes, we’ve bought the wrong satellites - OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink - a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

“What’s happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it – it’s bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else. It’s a tech and business gamble.”

Bowen added: “If you want to replace GPS for military-grade systems, where you need encrypted, secure signals that are precise to centimetres, I’m not sure you can do that on satellites as small as OneWeb’s.”

A government spokesperson responded: “We have made clear our ambitions for space and are developing a new national space strategy to bring long-term strategic and commercial benefits to the UK – we are in regular discussions with the space industry as part of this work.”

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in March in the US, where most of its operations are located, after failing to secure new funding. However, the company has continued launching its network of satellites, getting 34 satellites aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle from Kazakhstan in February, as part of its phase one constellation of 648 satellites designed to deliver high-speed, low-latency global internet connectivity.

Previously, the UK planned to build its own global navigation satellite system, at an estimated cost of between £3 billion and £4 billion. But in May this year that project was put on hold, weeks before a feasibility study into the scheme was due to be published, as its estimated cost rose to £5 billion.

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